Books

Best of 2014: Our Top 10 Art Books

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(original image via flickr.com/shutterhacks)

There’s never a shortage of art books, but it is often hard to find the best in a field flooded with vanity projects, sales tools, and books that promise so much more than they deliver. With that in mind, we’ve asked Hyperallergic staff members to offer their suggestions for books that are not only notable, informative, and interesting, but worth your time and money.

#1 – Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East (Ibraaz)

813q1lK2zoL-640Some of the most powerful images of the last few years have been coming out of North Africa and West Asia. Images of decapitation, war, revolution, protest, and upheavel from MENA nations have been seen on countless screens the world over. Edited by the always insightful Anthony Downey, Uncommon Grounds is a good place to start for those seeking to understand the role of new media in the region. This isn’t a conventional art book, but an exploration of new media and its impact on a land often manipulated and colonized (particularly through images) by foreign forces. Omar Kholief writes about politics, media, and art after the Arab Uprising; Franco Berardi considers the ability to activate networks of solidarity outside of the sphere of the economy; and Nat Muller thinks through the meaning and impact of death on social media. Downey explains why all this is crucial: “If artists are going to respond to the immediacy of events, and who is to say they should not, we nevertheless need to remain alert to how the rhetoric of conflict and the spectacle of revolution is deployed as a benchmark for discussing, if not determining, the institutional and critical legitimacy of these practices.” —Hrag Vartanian

#2 – Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, Ponte City (Steidl)

PonteCity-640This beautiful box set about Ponte City, Africa’s tallest residential building and a symbol of urban blight in Johannesburg, is a compilation of one large volume and 17 smaller booklets, which, like the floors of the apartment building itself, are stacked one on top of another. The narratives in these zine-like books veer from the personal to the more scholarly, but the photographs are the thread that sews together all the disparate strands to this project. You may not quite be sure what to think about this “book” (if you can even call it that), but Subotzsky and Waterhouse have created an enthralling storytelling device that echoes the difficulty of its subject matter almost too well. The most haunting booklet is titled Out the Windows, and it documents all the things that are hurled (or jump) out of the windows of the apartment block. —HV

#3 – LaToya Ruby Frazier: The Notion of Family (Aperture)

A1cU0gRBJDLThe first photograph after the title page in this book is a tightly cropped shot of a welcome sign for “Historic Braddock” (sponsored jointly by three companies that make air fresheners, odor control products, and do pest control). The second is an expansive aerial view of Braddock’s historic steel mill; the third a portrait of Frazier, topless, her hair messy and her gaze unflinching. In three strokes, the artist maps the terrain of her exploration: the family not only as a personal unit but as a broader community, existing in the wider world and intractably affected by it. Frazier’s challenging and haunting photographs have previously brought this story to museums and galleries, but in this, her first book, she adds writing to create a powerfully stark family portrait. The brilliance of this volume, and Frazier’s work, is in the way it manages to be both documentary and art, deeply intimate and widely important, relentless but so very necessary. —Jillian Steinhauer

#4 – Jalal Toufic, Forthcoming, Second Edition (Sternberg Press)

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 3.27.41 PMPerhaps best known as the theoretician of the surpassing disaster, this second edition of Toufic’s Forthcoming assembles a number of his key writings in theory and criticism, a project that in its stylistic ingenuity often attains the status of art itself. Possessed of an unusually associative erudition, Toufic is what might be called a difficult writer, but never more difficult than his ideas. “Once you figure out how to breathe his sentences, he is actually quite easy to read,” a collaborator of Toufic’s once told me. And indeed those who take the time to acclimate themselves to the work will find a highly original and conceptually-attuned thinker, the sort who once translated a portion of his writing into Ottoman Turkish to make a point about the resurrection of tradition. —Mostafa Heddaya

#5 – Lynne Tillman, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (Red Lemonade)

51fBEkBpXwL“Testing my limits in the screen/face of seeming limitlessness, testing the machinery before I buy into it totally or semi-totally.” That’s Lynne Tillman browsing the internet at a friend’s house, in 1995. “My digression, association, isn’t really wack,” she continues, after a parenthetical anecdote about the grandson of a British lord testing his machinery by getting away with crashing into two police vehicles. It’s true: there is nothing wack about Lynne Tillman, or this compilation of her ingressive digressions on everything from a pilgrimage to Morocco in search of Paul and Jane Bowles to a sophisticated commentary on Italian Futurism. —MH

 

#6 – Our America: Latino Presence in American Art (Smithsonian)

51tdGkSsKlLThe myth of America has been surprisingly exclusionary to all groups that refuse or are unable to disappear into the melting pot of the United States. Whether they are treated harshly or simply ignored, the artists from these groups are regularly omitted from history books, while their work is regularly assimilated by more mainstream artists who are only too happy to work within the framework of the art world’s orthodoxies. As Our America mentions, the artist collective Asco’s No Movies series anticipated (in a more radical way) Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills (1977–80), and Rafael Ferrer is finally getting his due after years of obscurity for his post-minimalist and process-based art. Even if the accompanying Smithsonian exhibition was not as spectacular as one would have hoped, this extensively illustrated (and rather academic) book provides ample evidence for a strong Latino presence in American art after the Second World War. —HV

#7 – Raphael Rubinstein, The Miraculous (Paper Monument)

51OsovN1PCL222As with Paper Monument’s previous book project, Draw it With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art AssignmentThe Miraculous is a well-received assemblage of small texts — diminutive in scale alone and more than earning the hype. This time it’s not an anthology but the work of a single author, Raphael Rubinstein, who delivers a poetic vision for an art history of nameless personages, artists whose projects are described in detailed yet anonymous capsules. Less an exercise in alternative history-making than in alternative history-reading, The Miraculous is a virtuosic book, stripping an ostensibly traveled terrain of its coordinates of familiarity — name, brand, ego. —MH

#8 – Fred Tomaselli: The Times (Prestel)

81UqW+WZpZLEver since artist Fred Tomaselli began his mesmerizing series of New York Times front page “hacks,” people have been eager for them to be compiled in book form. Well, here they are! It includes an introduction by Lawrence Weschler, who writes: “He talks about the Times pieces as caprices — brief, larkish, improvisational excursions from other more ambitious, focused, and often months-long engagements. He undertakes them in the spirit of play, but serious play.” Flipping through the book  — the works are arranged chronologically — is like a walk back in time. It is satisfying to see Tomaselli transform images of shamed Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi or erase right-wing US congressman Rick Santorum from a front page photo. He acts as a conscience for the rest of us by talking back to one of the last vestiges of authority left in print journalism. —HV

#9 – Winnie Wong Yin Wong, Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade (University of Chicago)

51VtBMXpXMLWinnie Won Yin Wong’s book was one of the most intriguing reads of the year for me. While people poke fun at the infamous Dafen Village on the outskirts of Shenzhen, China, for the fact that you can have any image hand painted on canvas (copyright laws don’t seem to apply), the author has done extensive research and taken the conversation beyond the stereotypes being peddled in the media and even in some contemporary art projects. She discusses everything from the “craft” of modernism, particularly in regard to copies of works by Vincent van Gogh, and reasons for Western fascination with this town that is caricatured as a land of artist automatons. Her words give you a lot to chew on, for instance: “…how do Dafen’s painter-workers avoid the trap of alienated commercial labor and instead reinvent themselves as original artists? The answer is to follow in the apparent politics of the party-state, make true art that expresses your individuality, persevere in ignoring the market, paint only what you want to paint. Here, the bohemian trope of individual self-expression extends from Hollywood straight into Chinese propaganda.” —HV

#10 – Olesya Turkina and Damon Murray, Soviet Space Dogs (FUEL Publishing)

sovietspacedogs12Before humans went above the atmosphere, animals that had no choice in their journey were propelled into space. With thorough research and an impressive collection of illustrations, Soviet Space Dogs was the first book to honor the Moscow strays who were enlisted to test spacecrafts in the 1960s. The propaganda posters, souvenirs, and photographs demonstrate how, thanks to compelling visuals, the dogs were transformed into heroes, even as their space testing was another moment in a long history of humans enlisting animals for unwitting sacrifice. —Allison Meier

Honorable Mentions

Joshua Decter, Art Is a Problem (JRP|Ringier)

61-G7QlJWNL-640As close to a textbook on contemporary art as was published this year, Decter’s Art Is a Problem is itself a problem — neither comprehensive salvo nor dry historical survey. Uniting Decter’s critical and curatorial output from 1986 to 2012, the book comprises texts from both career endeavors, including an important interview with Thelma Golden on the question of representation within the museum and curatorial essays from several of the author’s pioneering exhibitions. (I also happen to have cited one of his early projects in my review of another Best of 2014 selectionNew Ghost Stories at the Palais de Tokyo.) Students of the period — and of Decter’s areas of interest (art in institutional, social, and discursive contexts, among others) — will find this volume indispensable. —MH

Thomas Crow, The Long March of Pop: Art, Music and Design 1930–95 (Yale)

71XOsUXGZ-L-640Art historian Thomas Crow makes the case that Pop Art did not begin with Rauschenberg, Johns, or Warhol (or their British predecessors, like Richard Hamilton), but with with the folk revival of the 1930s and ’40s. He does a good job of chipping away at the mythic origins of one of the most influential styles of the late 20th century, pointing out that even when the Museum of Modern Art was founded, it was done so with “a dual commitment … a mission to foster awareness of both the great European modernists and the anonymous craftsmen of America’s rural hinterland.” Crow also extends the conventional timeline of Pop beyond the 1960s to the work of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Raymond Pettibon in the 1990s. —HV

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